America's Top 10 BEST Family Summer Vacation Ideas!

Jun 4, 2009 (Updated Jun 6, 2009)

The Bottom Line Summertime is family vacation time. These are my favorite "top 10 best" ideas for great summer family vacation memories to last a lifetime!

Every kid in America deserves at least one great summer vacation memory that will last a lifetime! There are great places to forge summertime memories in every one of the United States, and memories are really more about spending time doing things with family than they are about any specific destination. You don't need to travel far or spend a lot of money to have a memorable summer vacation. Summer family vacation memories may be as close as a tent in your nearest state park.

I hope I can give my kids a wonderful summer vacation memory this year. Here are a few of the ideas I'm thinking about as I start my vacation planning...

Here's a little secret, just between you and me. There's no way I can limit myself to just 10 great vacation destinations, so I've organized my thoughts into "theme" ideas, each with several destinations that I consider to be among "America's best". Feel free to leave a comment if you've got thoughts about similar "great summer memory" places. Enough chatter though, let's talk memorable summer vacations!

* Spend a week in a classic seaside beach resort
Scorching sunshine, sandy shores, and seaside surf are surefire kid pleasers. To bolster the family fun factor, look for great beaches that have boardwalks, arcades, sticky junk food, putt-putt golf courses with pirates and jungle animals, and loads of fun, tacky things to do and see. Slather on the sun block while you play volleyball or sun yourself all afternoon, then ride a ferris wheel or eat cotton candy and taffy until you explode. I don't know what I remember more about all the fun beach trips my Dad took me on when I was a kid: probably it's the smell of hot peanut oil at the Trasher's fry stand on Ocean City's boardwalk, though it could just as well be the blinking lights and clanging bells inside Playland. Ocean City Maryland is definitely one of America's finest classic boardwalk resort areas, though there are plenty of others to choose from too: Santa Cruz California would be a great choice for the west coasters while southerners might prefer Myrtle Beach South Carolina.

* Summer in the city!
City dwellers have a tendency to escape to the countryside for their summer vacations, but America's great cities do their share of welcoming summer tourists. Cities can be spectacular places for summertime memories. They often have summertime attractions like concerts in the park, their museums are often open extended hours into the sunny early evenings, and of course, there's nothing quite like taking your kids to the ballpark for an evening of America's Favorite Pasttime --- baseball! My favorite summertime "great city" is New York, with the promise of a day at Coney Island, an evening with the Mets (or those dastardly Yankees, if you must), or a classic Shakespeare performance in Central Park ( Washington D.C. is a great summertime city too, especially considering that almost every significant museum, monument, and memorial in the city are open to the public free of charge. I grew up in D.C. though, so while I have a lot of memories of doing things with my family on summertime evenings, most of my favorite summers were spent getting OUT of D.C. Aside from the Big Apple and the Nation's Capital, I think the biggest "memory" bang would be cities with lots to see and do: particularly San Francisco and Chicago.

* Spend a few days at a great theme park!
Too many people will automatically think I mean "Disney", but in fact, I think the memory potential and bang for the buck at Walt Disney World is not particularly good. Too expensive, too crowded, too hot, too humid, and oh, did I mention "too crowded"? With summer wait times that average well over an hour for all the significant rides, Disney memories are mostly about long lines. There are far better theme parks in America, many offering multi-day or season tickets that are cheaper than a SINGLE day admission into Walt Disney World. They invariably have smaller crowds, shorter lines, easier parking, and better nearby affordable hotels. Disney is real good about marketing, but the HONEST Disney patron will tell you that every word I say about the heat and the crowds is 100% pure gospel (after all, Disney doesn't sign my paycheck, why should I B.S. you?)

Where, then, could you have a truly GREAT summertime theme park vacation? Well, the best theme park in America is Cedar Park in Sandusky Ohio, and that's where I'd go if I wanted REAL thrill rides that would make a serious memory. Ride the coasters with your kids! Show them how to win a giant stuffed gorilla! Other good option would be San Antonio Texas where you could do the very clean, modern Six Flags Fiesta Texas and then the next day, cross town to SeaWorld Texas to splash down with Shamu. If you're on the west coast and gravitating toward Disneyland, consider also nearby Six Flags Magic Mountain (the roller coasters are certainly FAR better at Magic Mountain). Don't forget about water theme parks either.

* Take a classic road trip!
Families with an eye on the budget can forge some affordable vacation memories by simply piling in the family car and loading up a tent, a Rand McNally atlas, and a handful of my consumerly helpful reviews on great travel ideas. A good way to keep the memories pleasant is to avoid overdoing the driving. A few hours a day in the car is plenty. Plot a route that leaves time for sightseeing and fun activities along the way. Look for some oddities to keep things fun (like the biggest ball of yarn in America). You could look for a really scenic route, like California's Pacific Coast Highway (CA 1), or you might prefer meandering through the rolling backcountry of the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina and southern Virginia. If you're a history buff, then a drive down the Natchez Trace across Mississippi and up towards Memphis gives you plenty of chances to tour antebellum plantations, Civil War battlefields and even that most hallowed of musical destinations...Graceland. You could drive a great road: maybe Route 66. You could drive the old National Road. You could even see how much old neon and funky local vestiges of historic American road tripping you find along Route 1, from milepost 0 at the southernmost tip of the Florida Keys northwards up to the Canadian border in Fort Kent Maine.

* Float for a week!
Want to give your family a vacation they're SURE to remember? Rent a houseboat for a week on a big lake, or maybe even learn to sail and rent a bareback sailboat for a week on the ocean. There are lakes in about a dozen states where you can rent a houseboat, but some of the most popular houseboating lakes in America are in and around Arizona (like Lake Powell, Lake Mead, and Lake Havasu). Great places to charter a sailboat would be south Florida, the Chesapeake Bay of Maryland, and San Diego California. (Could even do a Maine windjammer cruise -- THAT could be an adventure!)

* Run a wild river!
If you're an adrenaline junkie and you've got teenage kids who don't want sedate summertime memories, think white. Like in white water....whitewater rafting...whitewater kayaks...whitewater canoes. It's all good, and it'll all get your blood roiling like a wild mountain river. The Colorado River and the Grand Canyon are your classic American whitewater destination (and one of the absolute coolest American vacations I've ever heard of is the chance to run the river in a classic wooden dory (see like those used by early western explorers. Oregon and Washington have plenty of great whitewater rivers to raft as well (like the infamous Rogue River). And just in case whitewater is a bit beyond your adrenaline tolerance, maybe you could canoe the flatter wilderness of the thousands of interlocking lakes along the U.S./Canadian border of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of the Superior National Forest (

* Marvel at the great outdoors!
Spend a week camping in one of America's spectacular national or state parks. Kids love to camp, hike, canoe, and explore nature. Plan some campfire songs and let them cook over an open fire. Show them how to tell a maple tree from an oak tree. City kids under 10 are especially fascinated by the world around them, and they'd rather have dad show them how to do stuff than anybody else. Some of the best parks in America are Yosemite and Sequoia in California, Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina and Tennessee, Rocky Mountain in Colorado, and Yellowstone in Wyoming ( And don't forget that there's more than 5,000 state parks across the United States --- some of which are enormous and quite spectacular. A few of my favorite summertime vacation memories were spent with my grandpa at Lake Itasca in Minnesota, with a onetime significant other at Salt Fork in Ohio and Ohiopyle in Pennsylvania, and with my own little brood of short shadows on Lake Ouachita in Arkansas. Great summertime memories don't have to be complicated or expensive: spending time with the family in the great outdoors can be a wonderful and affordable way to forge a lasting summertime memory.

These are just a few ideas for great summertime family vacations. Families with special interests might want to spin their own theme: maybe a road trip to classic Civil War battlefields of the south, or maybe a trip to a 2-day or 3-day music festival. No matter where you decide to go or what you decide to do, just spend some quality time with the kids and help them create a summer vacation memory they'll cherish a lifetime!

See you on the road!

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